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2009-06-23 10:52 AM
SERMON: Chocolate and Conscience
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"Chocolate and Conscience"
Unitarian Universalist Church of Tullahoma, TN
21 June 2009
In Singing the Living Tradition, there's a quotation from poet Adrienne Rich that I find myself returning to over and over again. It's Reading #463, and it states,
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
These words are printed on the same double-page spread as Edward Everett Hale's "I am only one," another passage that's become a touchstone for me:
I am only one
Now, you may be wondering, what do either of these declarations have to do with chocolate? What does chocolate have to do with spirituality? Is this woman about to tell me I'm a horrible person if I keep buying Hershey bars? In my experience, many discussions about food and values go off the rails before they ever get going, because our personal relationships to food are incredibly complex, and I want to recognize that from the get-go. As a topic, food can be every bit as volatile as the more traditional landmines of religion, money, and politics, in part because it's intricately and intimately related to all three, even when the connections aren't known or aren't talked about. What I want to do here today is to bring up and examine some of those connections, and to encourage you to consider the less-happy connections in terms of things you might want to consider doing, be it doing your own research on a particular angle, choosing to purchase a different brand of chocolate, making homemade Nutella, or pursuing some other action that reflects your specific context and theology. But I want to stress that this is a messy, multilayered subject, with a messy, sprawling, ongoing history: full-length books have been written on this topic, as well as acres of legal and legislative documentation, and our individual thresholds of outrage are going to vary, not to mention our individual resources. And especially where food is concerned -- especially for a food with so much culture, tradition, and outright emotion attached to it such as chocolate -- there is a natural tendency to go on the defensive or into pre-emptive denial when presented with less than gladsome tidings, and also when encountering people who have self-restricted themselves to a diet that one doesn't share. You may have witnessed this yourself in confrontations between vegans and meat-eaters: to give but one example, one of my college dorm-mates was a Hare Krishna who, among other things, openly condemned a fishing trip as mass murder and objected to the Oreos served during a study break because they contained lard. Totally sincere. Totally living and speaking her faith. But you could practically feel the temperature drop in the dorm lounge when she said those things, and the rolling of eyes, and I sometimes think of her when I run across other vegans or vegetarians who feel they have to distance themselves from their more militant brethren -- not unlike progressive Christians who feel compelled to point out that not all Christians are fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists. On the other side of the coin, the sense of persecution and crying out to a deaf wilderness isn't not without cause: I've personally been around meat-eaters who were generally civilized, but who thought nothing of taunting vegetarian guests over barbecue, and many of us probably have a story or two regarding an allergy or a diet that people near and dear to the person in question refused to take seriously, sometimes point-blank and sometimes expressed through unconscious acts of sabotage. Again, there are parallels that can be drawn to religious practice, and that whole discussion has taken up a lot of bookshelf space as well.
So let's get back to chocolate. Over the past decade, starting with a 1998 UNICEF report, there's been documentation by various news and human rights agencies of thousands of children working on African cocoa plantations, many of them as slaves or in other variations of forced labor. This directly relates to most of the chocolate products consumed in the United States, since West Africa produces approximately 60 to 70 percent of the world's cocoa. Put more bluntly, if you've ever bought a chocolate bar manufactured by Nestle, Hershey's, or another major Western company, the odds are unfortunately higher than not that child exploitation was involved in the production of the key ingredient. The evidence was sufficiently compelling that an international agreement called "The Cocoa Protocol" was crafted in 2001, in which the major players in the chocolate industry agreed to work towards the elimination of child labor from their supply chain. The original deadline for the protocol was July 2005; it was later extended to July 2008, and then yet again to 2010. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, the industry as a whole still has a long way to go. In their 2008 assessment, the IRLF stated that "consumers today have no more assurance than they did eight years ago that trafficked or exploited child labor was not used in the production of their chocolate."
Now, part of the messiness of this topic has to do with "child labor" being itself a catch-all term for a range of labor situations. On one end, it's been estimated that ten to twelve thousand children working on cocoa farms are outright slaves. That is, they were kidnapped and then sold or coerced into their current labor situation. Even one such case is unacceptable, but to give you a sense of scale, ten thousand is more than half the population of Tullahoma [18,697 as of 2009]. That's just for the cocoa industry; the U.S. State Department has a specific sub-department devoted to fighting modern-day slavery -- the official title is the "Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons" -- and its 2009 report was released last week. According to Secretary Clinton, "The United States currently funds 140 anti-trafficking programs in nearly 70 countries, as well as 42 domestic task forces." We're talking millions of victims here and now in the 21st century. All we cannot save, indeed.
At the same time, not all child labor is technically forced labor. In the case of West African cocoa production, the region is a mess, both politically and economically, and children end up working on their family farms instead of going to school because their parents can't afford to hire outside labor. Due to government corruption, to broken or non-existent infrastructures, and to global trends in the price of cocoa as a commodity, you've got generations of farmers deeply entrenched in vicious cycles of poverty. And when would-be reformers come in and tell them, "Stop resorting to child labor or else," it exacerbates their no-win situation, since they're not in a position to dictate how much they're getting paid for their crops, which is what necessitates the child labor in the first place.
Which in turn brings up the perennial Catch-22 of boycotts, which is whether they actually pressure companies into doing the right thing, or if they end up creating even more hardship for the people they're trying to help. In the case of chocolate manufacturing, it's been argued that boycotts would deflate the cocoa markets even further, shrinking the pool of income for farmers who are already not getting paid enough as it is.
At this point, having watched this issue on and off for several years, I don't see boycott efforts ever reaching a level of collective critical mass where they clearly convey to exporters and manufacturers, "You're losing profits because you're exploiting people." I've come to think of it as a bit of a Teflon topic, in how it just does not stick to the mainstream consciousness no matter how often it gets brought up. The link between chocolate and child labor is not new: the BBC's reported on it since 2001; CNN did a feature on it just last year. There have been books, documentaries, lawsuits, websites, and blogposts devoted to the matter, as well as religious initiatives -- I'll talk about the UU ones in a minute. In Britain, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has been very vocal about the interconnectedness of business, consumption, and spiritual mandates, repeatedly urging his parishioners to consider supporting fair trade chocolate, as well as publicly taking the candy industry to task for "being too slow to bring child labour and child trafficking to an end" where their supply chains are concerned. And yet, in the grand scheme of things, the topic has never managed to generate the kind of traction necessary to stay in the news and to become general household knowledge. It is, frankly, a sign of the brokenness of our world that, if I meet a stranger on the street, they are far more likely to know about this year's American Idol contestants than about the existence of modern-day slavery.
But this is also precisely why our personal consumption of chocolate -- and indeed, of everything else we eat and drink -- is in fact intimately connected to our values and our expression of them, whether we make the connections deliberately and with intent, or as a by-product of other priorities. And it's actually not an either/or thing, because a fact of modern living is that compromises do end up getting made, sometimes due to conflicting priorities and sometimes due to limited resources. I can't tell you where every single item of food in my pantry came from, but I'm well aware that some of it's outright bad for me, some of it's manufactured by companies I don't trust 100%, and some of the purchases had to do with what happened to be cheaper or closer to me vs. locally-produced, preservative-free juice or cheese or what-have-you. Yet I have my reasons and justifications, ranging from my sheer addiction to caffeine, which currently impacts my productivity if it isn't catered to, to balking at the price gap between, say, conventionally grown carrots and organic ones, to ordering non-fair-trade blends of coffee to fill requests made by my officemates. So I'm not in a position to judge anyone on their grocery lists.
All that said, I believe that small actions and micro-victories do matter, and that each of us is in a position not to judge but to encourage each other to do what we can, when we can, as we collectively work toward economic and social justice for all. There is only so much that legislation, litigation, or protocols can force through; what lies within our power are our personal transactions, our ability to educate ourselves and the people around us, and our willingness to speak our values to the wider world.
In the case of chocolate production and deplorable labor practices, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has been officially involved the past two years in a campaign called "Reverse Trick or Treating," where kids went from door to door distributing samples of Fair Trade chocolate with information about the child labor situation. On a broader scale, one of the current denomination-wide Study/Action issues is "Ethical Eating." This issue was selected by the delegates at last year's General Assembly as an area where many UU congregations and the Association as a whole are going to devote educational and social action resources. It's a four-year process that will eventually culminate in a Statement of Conscience in 2012 that formally documents the Association's current position on the issue, which in turns functions as a reference and a resource for UU offices such as the UUA's Advocacy and Witness team, which includes a lobbying office in Washington DC and a social justice trust based in India. Put another way, the Study/Action Issue and the resulting Statement of Conscience help guide and shape Unitarian Universalist participation in public policy. During the process, congregations and individual UUs are encouraged to weigh on best practices, workshops and initiatives they want to see, and the content and wording of the Statement of Conscience; the next deadline for congregational input is next March, so if you want to become part of the process, there's plenty of time. I've brought along the current version of the Resource Guide, which if someone here wants to keep, you're welcome to it, and I've also brought along an assortment of consumer guides and articles for those of you who want to take a closer look at the subject or to get an idea of where various chocolate brands fall on the social responsibility grid. These are all available from the web, as are many more reports and resources.
We live in complicated times, and on the one hand, that complicatedness is frankly a pain in the neck. There's a part of me that misses not feeling conflicted about eating M&Ms or Nutella crepes. On the other hand, as a Unitarian Universalist, doing right by that complicatedness is something that I see as an integral part of our faith. It's my hope that, in speaking here today, I've connected you to information you didn't have before or perhaps pointed out resources you might not have been aware of, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about food and labor and spirit intersect in your lives. It's a privilege to be alive and to have choices to make. As we sang earlier in this service ["Wake, Now, My Senses"], "Take not for granted a privileged place. . .join with all people whose rights are denied." Amen and alleluia.
[Closing hymn: All Whose Boast It Is]
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